Entrepreneurship is alive and well in rural Nebraska. Just ask Ryan Stauffer and A.J. Stauffer (no relation) of Seward. They are quickly outgrowing the 40-by-60-foot building they constructed to house all the shelves, racks, rollers and galvanized steel they use to build their patented invention — the Levrack. Before that, the parts were housed in Ryan's dad's machine shed.
Recently, the Levrack team won the People's Choice award in the American Farm Bureau's Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge for their design, which they unveiled for the first time at Husker Harvest Days in 2016. The Levrack is a movable shelf unit that mounts on sliders on a pallet rack, allowing shelves to move back and forth to fit more tools, parts or anything else into a smaller space.
Founded by Ryan, A.J. and Dolen Schweitzer, all of Seward in the winter of 2015, Peter Miller came on board in a consulting role in May. They come from diverse backgrounds: Ryan has a degree in business administration from McPherson College in Kansas; A.J. has a degree in mechanized systems management from the University of Nebraska; Dolen has an associate's degree in welding from Southeast Community College; and Peter has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Illinois. Over the last year, they've grown the Levrack concept to a startup company with a five-state footprint.
The idea was born in Ryan's family's farm shop. "We had been looking for ideas for storage on the farm," Ryan explains. "Two years ago, we lost our shop in a tornado. We bought this location, but still didn't have a great place for parts storage. We had talked about the idea of mobile aisles."
However, when they looked into plans for mobile aisles and shelving, they realized how much they would be investing in time, money and preparation.
Their original plan involved installing I-beams suspended from the ceiling and movable shelves across a 20-by-20 storage room — not to mention an $18,000 to $20,000 price tag. "It was so customized. It would have involved a team of engineers with blueprints and pricing quotes," A.J. says. "That was a learning experience. No one had packaged mobile storage in a way that's more convenient."
Borne out of necessity
They realized there was a need to fill in the market, and the idea for the Levrack was born.
They used existing pallet racking as the framework for the project, using four corner posts to mount shelves, with a pegboard enclosure, and galvanized sheet metal faces on either side.
Each shelving unit is suspended from the pallet racking by rollers with four reinforced polycarbonate wheels, with a total capacity of about 1,000 pounds per shelving unit.
Eventually, they replaced their original sheet metal sides with "quick plates" — sheet metal with curved sides that can be mounted directly to the shelves, eliminating the need for corner posts and fasteners. They've also added two LED lights per unit.
"We wanted to be able to bring it into your shop and take up a minimum amount of space," Ryan says. "Instead of having to corner off a part of your shop or build a mezzanine, you could just build it off the floor. We also liked how it hides everything; you can't see all of your junk."
While they started out fabricating the Levrack entirely by themselves, they began to hire other fabrication shops to pre-assemble them to expedite the process. "It was huge for us early on, because we didn't have to take drawings to a fabrication shop. We drew it up here and went out in our own shop and made it with our own tools," A.J. says. "That's great for a prototype but not practical for high volume."
A six-shelf unit condenses 24 feet of shelving into a 12-by-4-foot footprint. A unit comes with the pallet rack needed to install the unit, but the Levrack can also be installed into an existing pallet rack.
"We maintained the vertical storage space," A.J. says. "Here, our system takes 24 feet of shelving in 12 feet and you can still keep your overhead storage. It's also completely modular – you can take it and add a toolbox and different shelves."
Innovation on the farm
While the Levrack wasn't officially launched until HHD, it had already made a home in several farm shops by the end of March 2016. With the help of area farmers and industry representatives, they were able to fine-tune their product leading up to their official launch.
"In the farm arena, the receptiveness has been great. One advantage we had is if you design a product, you've got to put it into focus groups and a review process," A.J. says. "But we had neighbors and ag industry representatives that could come in and give us feedback during the process."
So far, they've seen interest at the farm shop and garage level, as well as from seed and chemical dealers — and even the occasional school. They're currently shipping them to five states.
"We really were constantly searching for this idea, maybe not in agriculture, but anyone that had already taken this idea of the mobile aisle and implemented it for a shop. The more we searched and couldn't find it, we realized this was an opportunity to create something and bring to market a product that's not there," Ryan says. "If there's been anything that's validated our idea, it's been the American Farm Bureau Federation Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge. It really gives a shot in the arm, a boost to some of these guys that are searching, testing their idea. That was the case for us."
"Farm shops don't always fit the typical image of entrepreneurs, but there's a ton of innovation on the farm, every day," Ryan adds. "If something breaks, you've got to fix it. We're always looking for ways to do things easier and more efficient. These ideas come out of necessity. If there's one place where necessity plays a role and you realize you could do things better, it's agriculture and farming."